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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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1. Astronomy may be broadly defined as any attempt
at a logical explanation of celestial motions. For a long
time this science was based essentially on calculation.
Indeed, the distance of objects at first confined obser-
vation within certain limits; the positive data acquired
were limited to the study of positions and displace-
ments. However, this descriptive knowledge was ex-
tended naturally by scientific hypotheses. With the use
of Galileo's telescope (1610) observation leaped for-
ward as did speculation about the constitution of
heavenly bodies. But astrophysics really began only
with spectrum analysis (1859). Despite constant
progress, our knowledge of astrophysics will probably
remain, even in our time, indirect and limited; specu-
lation and imagination will both probably continue to
enjoy more or less an open field.

Imagination—the ability to elicit, forge, and connect
a chain of images—is necessarily oriented and main-
tained by preferences of taste and sensibility. We shall
here consider imagination as a comprehensive faculty
which involves the whole of our psychical life from
the most intellectualized level to the depths of the
unconscious. Now the field of astronomy makes a pow-
erful appeal to this faculty or power of imagination.
Nothing is more important to man than to have a view
of the universe as a whole, because all life on earth
depends on cosmic cycles and because the celestial
world surrounding us seems to exert a compelling
influence on man's destiny. The idea of a corre-
spondence between Macrocosm and Microcosm
strengthens the bonds between the mind of man and
the Universe. In the view of philosophers, the cosmos,
the whole of God's creation, is the very archetype of
any harmonious construction of the mind and the
pattern of any work of art. From the time when the
Earth is no longer the fixed center of a closed world,
the proportions in the mind's picture of the universe
change; but as the Earth shrinks the importance of the
Universe grows. The idea that man makes of the world,
therefore, affects on all levels that power of imagina-
tion which we have said engages his whole mental life.

2. Let us start from the highest level. We owe to
A. O. Lovejoy the idea of “metaphysical pathos”; we
may prefer the more general term, “the pathos of
abstract ideas.” Certain ideas of this kind, despite their
barren appearance, awaken in different temperaments
various reactions of a specifically emotional resonance.
No better definition of this phenomenon can be given
here than that of Kant in his Theory of the Heavens
(Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels,
1755): “If the aspect of so perfect a totality stirs the
imagination, a delight of another sort grips the intel-
lect, all the more so when it considers how so many
magnificent and grand consequences flow from a single
general law....” Kant's intellectual delight here was
stimulated by a consummately abstract idea: the har-
mony of a unified explanation.

Like this aesthetic emotion, to which it is closely
allied, the intellectual emotion often originates on a
level where obscure stimuli, difficult to bring to light,
can yield only an incomplete explanation of their
effects, so enriched are they by the development of
culture and thought. However, certain cosmic hy-
potheses appeal to unconscious predilections which are
comparatively easy to detect: such are all dreams about
genesis. In order to expose the origins of these imagi-
native constructions we shall look to the undisputed
gains of the main psychoanalytical schools (but without
referring to any of the strictly orthodox among them).

Here, however, we shall adopt a working hypothesis:
there exist families of minds, each corresponding to
a type of cosmic imagination; furthermore, the manner
in which a thinker conceives and imagines the universe
is the best key to the character of his mind.

Since attempts at classifying minds according to
ways of imagining the world have been made before,
our course has already been charted. G. Bachelard has
distinguished four types based on their respective
modes of dreaming about the elements, and we shall
meet them on the way. However, we prefer to follow
the ideas of A. O. Lovejoy, A. N. Whitehead, M. H.
Nicolson, and A. Koestler who have brought to light
a certain polarity and classified minds in two opposing
groups, which will be described below as the Parme-
nidean and the Heraclitean. The works of these four
authors, based on the study of scientific ideas and their
reverberation in the poetic imagination, are to be
joined to the conclusions of other inquirers whose
starting point is different, namely, those who have been
occupied with the idea of the baroque in the arts and
literature: H. Wölfflin, previous hit E next hit. d'Ors, and J. Rousset. There
would then be two types of minds, one attracted


strongly by permanence, the other by change. The first
are usually called “classical,” the second either “ro-
mantic” or “baroque.” We prefer to follow Koestler's
suggestion, and designate the two types of mind under
the names respectively of two precursors of cos-
mogony: Parmenides and Heraclitus.

The Parmenidean places himself outside of time and
takes the side of the eternal. Underneath his choice,
one can detect perhaps a fear, a recoil from whatever
is transformed, crumbles, decays...; in short, he
recoils from the biological laws which include decom-
position as an integral part. Because he fears death,
the Parmenidean does not love life. But there is some-
thing more: an aesthetic taste, a choice of an idea, and
at times, a religious motivation.

The forms of cosmic pathos to which the follower
of Parmenides is susceptible are those which have come
to terms with the Eternal, attracted by the purity and
rigidity of an incorruptible substance. Everything
enters into a clear and stable harmony: the Pythago-
rean aesthetic of numbers and configurations, the circle
and sphere as types of perfection; and as the divine
type of motion a steady eternal rotation, equivalent
to the unmoveable. With a greater degree of com-
plexity, the Music and Dance of the planets appear
in a harmony of numbers and combination of configu-
rations in a similarly experienced duration and in
strictly determined limits.

For this aesthetic of the Eternal is an aesthetic of
the Finite: what is perfect or complete necessarily has
limits. It is also the aesthetic of Discontinuity and of
Hierarchy: the Scale of Being is fixed with distinct
levels in the Parmenidean cosmos. Each thing has
its place, and the thinking man enjoys the pleasure
of feeling that he is in his right place. It is an aes-
thetic of immutable Unity, and not of a process of

The Parmenidean thinker is more or less suscep-
tible—and susceptibility varies in degree with each
individual—to the pathos of Unity in explanation, of
simplicity in basic assumptions, and of implacable rigor
in formulated laws. There is also the pathos of ideal
exactness in the appropriation and coherence of a
well-knit network of logical correspondences and rela-
tions which take in the whole of creation and leave
nothing out.

As for the Heraclitean, he is susceptible to the pathos
of Becoming, and in order that it may unfold and reveal
itself, he needs the Unlimited. If we seek any deep
motivation, we discover a taste for life which accepts
everything which life implies, including death as a
condition for a new birth. There is a boldness in his
outlook which rejects protection and authority, and
assumes a willingness to take risks of all sorts. The
appeal of the Heraclitean kind of pathos to instinctive
forces and to the Unconscious is naturally greater than
it is in the Parmenidean family of minds.

The Heraclitean type includes everything arising out
of the fascination of change, and transfers to the cosmic
plane whatever is integral to the cycle of life. There
are dreams of life's genesis: the pathos of Birth and
its original freshness, the pathos of continuous Creation
and its inexhaustible onward surge. There are dreams
of life's evolution: the pathos of continuity and of the
flow of the forms of life. Opposing the Parmenidean
pathos of Unity is that of Variety: the taste for profusion
and even disorder; the taste for the irregular, the origi-
nal, the unique which will feed the dream of the
plurality of worlds. In opposition to the joy of feeling
satisfied with being “in one's place,” there is the intox-
ication of being lost in the swarming proliferation of
universal Being. In order to accommodate all these
wonderful things, the true Heraclitean requires Pleni-
tude, a fullness within the Infinity of space, akin to
the infinity of God and to the unlimited capacity of
the soul of man.

While the Parmenidean accepts hierarchy and its
hemmed-in gradations, the Heraclitean, on the other
hand, is alive to the pathos of absolute freedom; and
in certain eras, he experiences the pathos of liberation,
of transport, and of flight without thought of return.
He is a traveler in the mind. Lastly, the science of
motion for him is not mechanics but dynamics. Cosmic
energies are absorbed in vital forces; he is receptive
not to steady and completely smooth rotation, but
welcomes the conflict of opposites, tension, and effort,
so that his Universe tends to be polarized.

3. In practice it is not always easy to classify types
of imagination because there are mixed forms. Some-
times the same myth can be sensed in two opposite
ways, e.g., in the case of the idea of Eternal Return.
There are, after all, pathological cases: obsessions
which cannot be judged as preferences, but as feelings
of disgust and terror; there also exist minds that are
perverted or paralyzed by the dominant world view
of their times. In fact, different sorts of individual
characters are encouraged or modified by the spirit of
the times. Philosophical influences play their role in
the predominance of different types of imagination,
e.g., whenever the Platonic influence is foremost, the
heavens claim more attention; on the other hand, the
Aristotelian influence turns the mind away from too
eager concern about outer space. Furthermore, in the
interaction of scientific research and cosmic dreams,
the scale of science and imagination is displaced to
the extent that the former makes itself independent


of the latter. Man's effort to confine science to involve-
ment with his deeper wishes becomes more and more
difficult, although never discouraged.

4. For we must take into account a phenomenon
often noted but never explained: a sort of respiratory
rhythm in history, a psychological balancing-wheel,
which creates kinships between one epoch and another,
separated by long intervals. According to previous hit E next hit. d'Ors, a
classical era is followed by a baroque era; in the cos-
mological imagination, a Parmenidean era is followed
by a Heraclitean era. Intellectual rigor gives way to
an insurgence of instinctive forces. There are whole-
some but harsh disciplines (like Aristotelianism) which
are obstacles to such revolts; then the day comes when
the barrier collapses. It was maintained by timidity;
all of a sudden fear has disappeared, and the attractive
but disturbing doctrines regain their sway and release
an enormous internal flood of images. These move-
ments are difficult to explain, for social causation does
not help; neither do the discoveries of new worlds or
of Greek manuscripts. But they must be recognized
and taken into account.

We can indicate summarily some of these intellectual
rhythms. The triumph of scholastic philosophy in the
thirteenth century inaugurated a Parmenidean era in
cosmology. The Florentine Renaissance in the fifteenth
century inaugurated a Heraclitean era which was
joined with the Neo-Platonism of the first centuries;
the new spirit kept growing stronger making possible
the infinite worlds of Bruno's cosmology and the dis-
coveries of Kepler and Galileo. The seventeenth cen-
tury saw the opposition between classical French
thought dominated by Descartes and British thought
dominated by the appeal of the infinite. Newton rec-
onciled temporarily the two tendencies by satisfying
both. But the eighteenth century, in the main super-
ficially classical, marked a return to the Renaissance,
to a taste for magic and the occult; Leibniz' philoso-
phy, whose influence was enormous, strengthened the
renewed need for Plenitude, infinite Diversity, and
creative profusion. And the nineteenth century, despite
the steady progress of pure science, was to see, about
every twenty years, a return of this Leibnizian intel-
lectual outlook accompanied by the flourishing growth
of the same dreams; for example, the plurality of in-
habited worlds offered itself to a plurality of existing
beings in a continuous ascent towards an unattainable

The relations between imagination and astronomy
will be studied here from two points of view: how
imagination favors or obstructs the efforts of true sci-
entists; and how, among nonspecialists, it takes posses-
sion of discoveries, distorts them, and supplements
them in its own way. We shall give only some attention
to the second point of view.